Some poker books feature elite strategy designed to transform your game from a losing one to one where you’re a paragon of profit. Other poker books are stories, narrative-led tales of derring-do where the main protagonist is shooting for the proverbial poker moon.
This week’s book, the amusingly-entitled Vegas or Bust could be said to offer both a strategic and life lesson in the same story, all wrapped up in the kind of plot that Hollywood movies might be knocking on the door to replicate.
The story, while expansive and thrilling, is also very simple. Johnny Kampis is the man who played in the Main Event in 2006 and busted with pocket kings against pocket aces. That is, in isolation, no strange thing. There must be thousands of people who have that self-same story of how their luck ran out in Las Vegas in the biggest poker event each year.
Three years after Moneymaker won the Main Event, it was Jamie Gold who won the biggest first prize the Main ever offered – an eye-watering $12 million. But while the confetti fell around Gold’s ears, Kampis was walking away from the World Series and Las Vegas.
Drifting away from poker, Kampis may have lost out on the world’s biggest tournament poker prize at the time, but he found love instead in the form of Amy, who he married and had two children with.
Fast-forward 12 years and the now-suburban Kampis is a journalist, having written for the New York Times, Time, Fox News and Huffington Post. Despite that, he still has that itch to see if he can go one step further at the WSOP Main Event, and in 2018, returns to the scene of the crime to see if he can change his own poker story’s ending.
Traveling with his family from rural Alabama back to Las Vegas and Sin City, Kampis ponies up the $10,000 entry with what feels like so much more on the line.
The book explores the changes in poker and is great at doing so, but there are almost two stories running in tandem on parallel lines. One is the narrative of the game of poker itself, from the high of the poker boom through the gloom of Black Friday and beyond.
The second ‘twin’ narrative is essentially how a poker player changes with the addition of a wife and children, how responsibility changes players and how Kampis’ own feelings towards the game itself and the WSOP Main Event have altered with the passing of time.
There are heroes and villains both on and off the table, and plenty of poker strategy to get your teeth into as Kampis tells you exactly what predicaments he gets into at the felt and how he gets out of them or not.
This is essentially a poker story where the main protagonist has changed from the person he was – a young, hungry poker player – into a family man with different responsibilities and therefore dreams that are related to his new life rather than his old one.
John Hartness, author of the Quincy Harker novels, calls Vegas or Bust a classic, saying “Kampis hit[s] the jackpot with this story of love, hope, life, and poker.”, while — Dan Michalski, founder of Pokerati.com, is the cover quote, saying that “This might be the best book about poker in nearly a decade.”
It’s hard to disagree with either opinion and we loved the moral of the story, that if you have a family you value more than any Royal Flush, then you already have the best hand in the deck.